Arriving as the Stranger

Oct 25, 2021 | Sports Friends The Americas

It is a common experience for refugee families to leave everything and everyone they know because the danger of staying home is greater than the danger of fleeing into an uncertain future. They are forced to walk forward in faith that there is something better for them, for their children. Already familiar with incredible loss, they must keep facing risk and vulnerability if they hope to succeed in finding a more secure future.

If you have never lived in an unfamiliar place, let us invite you to imagine yourself arriving as the stranger in a foreign land…

After thirteen hours in the air, your plane finally descends and your anxiety settles as the metal beast rolls to a stop. You gather up your four weary children and carry-on baggage, then bump along in line with all the other passengers eager to get out of this flying machine. You haven’t slept in two days. The three-year-old is too exhausted to walk, so you carry him, also somehow hauling five more bags that dangle from your arms. You all trudge through the airport toward the baggage claim. How are you going to manage the luggage and the children? Everything your family owns had been carefully arranged in four large plastic boxes secured with zip ties and packing tape. This would have been difficult enough even if your husband were here with you… 

You pile the children atop the carry-ons and stand to watch the black belt on baggage claim 8 continue its endless cycle. Your mind cycles back to check in at your home airport two days ago. All of your friends and family had already been scattered when you fled your city before the rebels arrived. Only your husband was at the airport to say goodbye. You were supposed to be flying together, arriving in this new country together, but his paperwork had been delayed. You and the children had to go now, while you had the chance. He had kissed you and told the boys, aged 8, 7, 5, and 3 to take good care of you and help however they could. He’d promised to come as soon as possible, but you were both well aware of families who’d been separated for years while documents were being “processed”. It had been impossible to hold back your tears or silence your fear of moving across the ocean alone. 

Awaking again to the present reality and resisting the panic trying to climb up in your chest, you notice the dark plastic tote boxes coming around the baggage claim. You pull them off, one by one. The ones with school books are so heavy, but you didn’t want the children to lose all their reading progress, and you didn’t know how quickly you’d find early Arabic readers here in the USA. Not that you’d have extra money for books, anyway. Your husband had given you everything, claiming he could find some work while he waited, so you had all the cash, $382 in USD, tucked carefully inside your dress. Now here you are, standing with a stack of boxes and a stack of children, wondering what to do next. Honestly, you’re almost too tired to think at all.  

A kind stranger unexpectedly strides up, offering a luggage cart, then helps you stack everything perfectly onto it. His warm smile and generosity transcends the language barrier, and as he hands sticks of gum to the children, their eyes light up and their energy is renewed. Maybe this really will be a good new home!

Your hope has been rekindled and you’re able to move forward again toward immigration and customs. You’re clearly a foreigner, but you have the proper documents in the manila envelope you nervously hand over to the officer. You just hope they don’t want to search all the luggage. Thankfully, your family is allowed to proceed without additional investigation, and you exit the terminal onto American soil. You’re here. You’re safe now. There is no fear in the air, and security doesn’t even carry machine guns. You grasp the baby’s hand and tell the children to watch the luggage cart carefully while you search the crowd for a sign bearing your name. A refugee welcome service knows you’re coming and your husband had told you not to leave the airport until you found them.

There! You see a smiling couple holding a sign with your name written in both English and Arabic to be sure you could read it. You could weep with relief, but determine to hold the emotions in check as the woman embraces you and the man shakes hands with each of your sons. They greet you with general Arabic introductions, and it is sweet to hear intentional love speaking in your mother tongue, however simply. The man takes over pushing your cart, and they wheel you out to their van and load everything in. 

You watch out the window as the van pulls out of the parking lot to travel down streets marked with signs you can’t read, and you hear the radio play upbeat songs you can’t understand. You notice that not many people walk here, and there are not many motorbikes. You begin to wonder how easy it will be to get around here without a vehicle or a driver’s license. Maybe it will just be a twenty minute walk to the market like it was back home. Within an hour you pull up to an apartment complex and you are so thankful for this couple who continues to engage with you despite your poor English. You are so weary, but the man happily carries all the luggage up to the third floor flat while his wife unlocks the door and begins to show you around.

There is carpet on the floor, and unbroken glass in every window. There are two bedrooms, a small living area and a kitchen. Gratitude overflows as you discover someone has provided a mattress for you and extra blankets for the children. It is almost winter here, and you are far more accustomed to warm weather. The children have never seen snow, but you’ve been told that in this city it can reach half a meter deep! 

A couch with a floral print sits in the living area, and the boys immediately pile onto it, sinking into the deep cushions and exclaiming at how soft it is. They begin to wrestle, deciding who will get to sleep on it first, though they all know it will be the oldest son. You smile as they play, hoping against hope they will never have to huddle together under the table while bombs go off outside. The table… there is a table with four chairs! A bowl with fresh fruit stirs your stomach to growl, but you follow the woman through the kitchen to investigate the pantry supplies they’ve already graciously provided for you. The packaging and labels are all strange, and your brain cannot process all of this information tonight, no matter how much English preparation you’ve done. The bread looks very strange and is wrapped in plastic, but you can tell what it is. There are flour, oil, rice, lentils, beans, onions. Milk, eggs, and greens are kept in a refrigerator, and you know you can make a nice meal once you unpack the pots and spices. The kindness on display through this compassionate couple reminds you of your home country’s hospitality toward family and friends. They have truly welcomed you. 

But now it is time for them to leave, and they encourage you to get some sleep. They promise to return in two days to show you around the neighborhood. You hope this is true, and remind yourself they have been so good to you already and you must trust them. You must trust God to care for you. 

After a quick dinner of eggs and bread, you leave the few dishes stacked in the sink until tomorrow. The boys are all clustered together on your bed tonight because they want to sleep close to you and it is already chilly. You thank God your family is safe here, but you ache for your husband’s strong presence. The tears finally begin to fall silently as you stare at the empty walls. The scarf you’d hung across the window does a poor job blocking out the streetlight. Your mind begins to wander through the unknowns ahead. Where will you shop for your groceries? Will there be normal food, or mostly these boxes and cans already prepared with strange flavors and colors? You’ve already learned how difficult and exhausting it is to translate labels and calculate cost differences in this new currency. How do you pay for the electric bill here, and how much will it be? What will you do if one of the children gets sick? How do you get a phone number, and who can you call with questions? When and where will the children go to school, and will there be anyone to help them with English? How will you find work? Surely your money will not last long in this expensive place. How long will you be alone? 

The questions run through your mind until you drift off to sleep. Tomorrow will come along with all its questions. You must trust God to answer them.